January 10, 2000
Victor Serebriakoff, 87, Dies; Oversaw the Growth of
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Serebriakoff, who helped Mensa, the organization for self-conscious but
intensely convivial intelligentsia, grow from four eggheads around a London
dinner table to a worldwide intellectual omelet of more than 100,000, died on
New Year's Day at his home in Blackheath, a London suburb. He was 87. [Born
Oct. 17, 1912.]
Mensa (the name means table in Latin) began in 1946 as an
organization for people with I.Q.'s in the top 2 percent of the population.
But by 1954, just four members attended the annual meeting;
two were Mr. Serebriakoff and his wife, Winifred.
Why pretend? said the society's secretary, Joe
Wilson. We're really just a group of friends who like to meet.
Seems a shame, Mr. Serebriakoff said.
The short, bearded man with twinkling eyes was immediately
named secretary. He invigorated what had been a flagging black-tie dinner club
by sending out brochures, appearing on television, approaching universities and
introducing supervised testing as an entry requirement.
Perhaps most important, he decided that Mensa must be
completely uncommitted and impartial, with no corporate views, and that nothing
said by any member should be considered anything other than his or her personal
view. He played down Mensa's original mission of providing advice to
governments, not least because no government had expressed any interest.
I thought of a way to package this club and develop
it, he said. Sometimes I felt like the Sorcerer's Apprentice.
The Times of London suggested in 1992 that Mr. Serebriakoff
purveyed a fictional air, as though he were the invention of an Edwardian
novelist. The paper went so far as to suggest that his very name could
have been a play on the word cerebral.
The truth was that he was born in the slums of East London,
the son of a Russian father and a cockney mother. His brains caused trouble
early on. I was chased home from school every day because I was the kid
who put his hand up at every question, he told The Chicago Tribune in
1986. The teachers liked me all right, but the other kids didn't.
He dropped out and got a job as an office clerk at a lumber
company, but he was soon dismissed for lack of attention to detail. He then
worked as a manual laborer, with periods of unemployment during the Depression.
He was late getting into World War II. On the standardized
Army intelligence test, he learned that he had an I.Q. of at least 161, as high
as the scale went. The Army assigned him to train recruits in its teaching
After the war he refused a commission and went back to the
timber business, inventing a machine for grading timber and introducing metric
measurements. He became the manager of a sawmill, and under the pen name Victor
Serry wrote British Sawmilling Practice, among other timber-related
Mr. Serebriakoff joined Mensa in 1950 after his first wife,
Mary, cut an advertisement out of a newspaper and encouraged him to join. She
died soon afterward, and he married Winifred Rouse, whom he had met at Mensa
meetings. Though the marriage lasted until her death in 1995, it led to a not
entirely pleasant philosophical revelation, as he told The New York Times
Magazine in 1960:
When I joined Mensa I thought, 'Now I am joining a
bunch of very bright people; therefore everyone will agree with me.' Alas, this
turned out not to be so. Then I married a member and began to learn the full
extent, breadth and profundity of human disagreement.
Mr. Serebriakoff never denied being an elitist but remained
calm and courteous throughout the spirited discussions at think-ins, as meeting
are called. He addressed the issue of smart people breeding with smart people
on several occasions.
It's easy to say bright people should marry other
bright people to produce bright children, but then you have to realize you're
also saying dim people will be left only with other dim people to marry -- and
is that desirable? he told Look magazine in 1964. Of course,
nobody can think straight on the subject because sooner or later Hitler's name
comes up, and then all thinking stops.
In 1982, he was named Mensa's honorary international
president and in the next decade campaigned for educational improvements for
Mr. Serebriakoff wrote and lectured widely about the brain,
intelligence and educating gifted children. He also wrote humorous poetry,
including Vile Verse, published in 1997. He is survived by a son, Mark,
of London and a daughter, Judith, of Anglesey, a small island off northwest
Mensa colleagues said that by living past the midnight that
ended the millennium, Mr. Serebriakoff achieved his final ambition. They noted
that his apartment in Blackheath lies almost exactly on the prime meridian.